Skepticism and (Not Needing) The Last Word (RJS)

As most are aware by this time, Dallas Willard passed away last Wednesday. Dallas Willard was a Professor of Philosophy at USC, The University of Southern California, for 47 years. He began as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy in 1965 and moved through the ranks from assistant to associate to full professor. He retired last fall and was an emeritus professor at the time of his death. It was an impressive career. USC has a nice tribute on their website: In Memoriam, a tribute to the respect with which he was held by many.

Of course we are remembering Willard on this site because he was not simply a professor of philosophy. He was, especially later in his career, a philosophy professor “for the church”. He wasn’t simply trying to succeed in his career, but was making a difference for the church. I’ve been a professor now – Chemistry not Philosophy – for 20 years at a major secular University. It isn’t an easy task, or a particularly comfortable environment much of the time.  I was introduced to Willard and his work through the pastor of our church, especially The Divine Conspiracy which figured large in a series on The Sermon on the Mount. Since then I’ve read several of his other books as well.

For many Willard was connected with the idea of spiritual disciplines from one of his first “religious” books – The Spirit of the Disciplines published in 1988. What impressed me most with Willard, however, was his approach to Christianity with intellectual integrity and with faith. This observation from John Ortberg’s tribute to Dallas Willard in Christianity Today I find a particularly powerful reflection of his strength, and it serves as an example and a challenge for the rest of us who continue on for a time.

In one of his classes a student challenged him with statements that were both offensive and incorrect. Dallas paused and told the class that that was a good place to end their discussion. Somebody asked Dallas afterward why he had not countered the students’ argument and put him in his place. “I’m practicing the discipline of not having to have the last word.”

This is part of why Dallas would never debate non-believers. He would engage in a mutual conversation where both parties could seek for truth together. He would often say: “I’m sure Jesus is the kind of person who would be the first to say you must ruthlessly follow the truth wherever it leads.” Through the last week of his life he was still hoping to help believers engage non-believers by looking together at questions where people get stuck in their actual lives rather than by trying to win arguments.

We need quality Christian thinkers like Willard, unafraid of truth and inquiry.  Those who can stand up and think, who don’t need the last word, and who ruthlessly follow truth wherever it leads.  I am not sure how many realize how deeply important this is in the 21st century church and university. We will miss his voice and insight.

Rather than end on that note however, I would like to put up for conversation some ideas from what must have been one of Willard’s last public speaking engagements.

Skepticism for the Good. On  Feb 12, 2013 Dallas Willard participated in a Veritas Forum event at the Claremont Consortium. The title of his presentation: What Skepticism is Good For.   The video is available on the Veritas site (link on the title) and on YouTube (embedded below). The video is long, but well worth a listen if you have the time. In the first segment (41 minutes) Dallas Willard gives an overview of the value of skepticism in thinking through the issues of life and of some of the pitfalls of skepticism.  This is followed by about another 41 minutes of question and answer, with a local Philosophy professor and from the audience.  I highly recommend the first segment, even if you haven’t time for the whole thing.  For the sake of discussion here however, I’ll highlight a few key points below the clip.

YouTube Preview Image

The Purpose of Skepticism. Willard starts off the talk outlining the two purposes of skepticism.

1) To undermine illegitimate forms of authority.

2) To stimulate inquiry.

We need skepticism for both of these reasons. We move forward in knowledge and understanding through the inquiry stimulated by skepticism. This skepticism is directed toward unsatisfactory answers to questions about the world around us and questions about the nature of life.

We also need skepticism to break free of illegitimate forms of authority – whether political, intellectual, secular, or religious.

Later in the talk (~25 minutes) Willard focuses on two kinds of skepticism.

1) Extreme dogmatic skepticism. This kind of skepticism shuts off serious inquiry to things that really matter.

2) Targeted skepticism. This is, Willard claims, an intellectual duty that has virtue about it. It arises from the need for truth and knowledge in responsible living.

To teach critical thinking is to teach a targeted skepticism.

Finally a quote: (28:50-29:40)

Institutions could, without becoming terribly crushing in their authority, help people come to the place where their beliefs are based upon knowledge. But institutions tend not to do that because they find inquiry threatening. And one of the worst things that happens for young people, particularly who are raised in a particular political or religious context is they’re encouraged to think that to inquire is itself a kind of treason. Whereas the only hopeful thing for a young person is to inquire in such a way as to find out the extent to which their beliefs can be based upon knowledge.

We don’t need debate, and we don’t need dogmatic authority. Within the church and within the academy we need healthy targeted skepticism. We need mutual conversation where both parties can seek for truth together.

And … we need to practice the discipline of not needing the last word. We are in this pursuit of truth for the long haul. Honest inquiry and skepticism should never be viewed as a kind of treason.

Do you think we should ruthlessly pursue truth wherever it leads?

Is targeted skepticism healthy? Can the faith stand up to inquiry?

Of what should we be afraid?

If you wish you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • Bob B.

    RJS, you misspelled In Memoriam (the website’s name) as “In Memorium”….I am skeptical that you ever took Latin. :)

  • RJS4DQ

    Whoops. Fixed now.

    That is a wise thing to be skeptical of – and no, I never took Latin. What’s worse, though, is that I couldn’t even copy it correctly from the tab open before me.

  • Mark Farmer

    Thanks for this, rjs. We are participating in National Interview an Atheist in Church Day this Sunday (with a two week delay because of our friendly atheist’s unavailability on the “official” 5/5 date), and this promises to enrich my preparation of the interview.
    I like your new Disqus tag, supposing that the “4DQ” means for you what it does for me: a certain soft ice cream establishment (that does chocolate-dipped cones).

  • Tom F.

    Whether we are pursuing truth, defending dogma, or being skeptical, I am increasingly thinking that humility is key. I think I’m increasingly finding that sometimes the issue less about science/faith (although that can’t be neglected), and more about the manner or way we think about and use truth.

    Are we open to having our own beliefs challenged? Do we only apply skepticism to other’s beliefs? Are we sensitive to the ways that people’s beliefs are part of how they live and get around in the world? Is our pursuit of truth about love of God and neighbor and care for creation, or is it about power over others, over creation, so that we can be in control?

    I feel challenged by Willard’s example here: there have definitely been times I have felt compelled to have the last word. So much of that has nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with maturity. Which, of course, was one of Willard’s big points as well about the failure of Western ethics to actually form good persons, and instead debate abstract ethics.

  • RJS4DQ

    Mark,

    The soft ice cream establishment occurred to me as well – although only after I had selected the tag.

    I don’t go for the chocolate-dipped though, Give me a plain cone … or better yet a hot fudge sundae.


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